Collage Artist Justin Lieberman Cuts to the Chase

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For designers who find imaginative, experimental publications sexy, Printed Matter’s second L.A. Art Book Fair was an orgy of visual delights. An international array of over 250 exhibitors displayed thousands of books — from the handprinted to the mass produced — throughout MOCA’s labyrinthian Geffen Contemporary. The four-day event attracted 25,000 visitors and garnered critical praise. Admission was free. Beyond that, Brodovitch’s Ballet could be yours for $25,000. Mostly, though, you could find zines and other independent publishing efforts in all shapes and sizes for 25¢ and up. At one point, I had to barter for a book by paint/assemblage/installation artist Justin Lieberman.

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The vendor, Ryan Foerster, had taped up makeshift signs declaring “Fair Trades Only” and “No $$$.” So in exchange for some food truck grub from outside the gallery, I picked up Hopi Basket Weaving by Justin, a fellow exhibitor with Ryan at Martos Gallery in New York.

Justin will tell people he “glues trash together.” And at a glance the book can appear slapdash. It also feels both intimidating and compelling. Careful scrutiny reveals a clever, subtle design sensibility, along with a wickedly absurdist wit.

Justin assembled Hopi Basket Weaving by drawing, painting, hand-lettering, and pasting over a 1996 book of the same name, subtitled “Artistry in Natural Fibers.” His version, created 20 years later, is partly a colorful autobiography: he describes himself as a former arsonist and heroin addict as well as a manipulative careerist and an evil egomaniac. HBW is also an anarchic art catalog which includes the Photoshop collage “Thank Heaven for Little Girls” that we discuss below. And it’s a critique of mass culture and its producers, in which he describes his objection to the heavy-handedness of design provocateur Tibor Kalman and punk poster artist Winston Smith. There’s also a page titled “Homage to Paul Rand.”

Our conversation wove through subjects as diverse as Kalman and Derrida, underground comix and copyrights, and pedophilia and censorship. Justin also declared that “most art really is a form of reactionary liberal propaganda, which we have to work against.”

Click all images to enlarge.

Mezzanine and entrance area of the Geffen Contemporary. Photo: M. Dooley

Mezzanine and entrance area of the Geffen Contemporary. Panorama collage: M. Dooley

Q: How did Hopi Basket Weaving come about?

I’d sold enough pictures and sculptures through enough galleries that they were willing to throw down some cash for me to make it. This was before 2008. I think six galleries all chipped in to pay for it. Then I got a lot of complaints about the order of the names listed on the page where they were credited. Probably they didn’t spend too much time with the rest of it.

As for what is internal to the book, I knew I wanted to use an existing book and go over it. I went to the Strand and started looking through a random cut-out bin. I think I found Hopi Basket Weaving in the first row. I chose it because of the way such work is treated as sacred, outside, not subject to modern universalist critique. It could have just as easily been a book on Henry Darger though, or some other canonized subject whose cultural status makes it appear separate, immune, or beneath consideration.

Critics have written about my work as though it belongs to this “special” group, this short bus they invented to contain things whose motivations seem alien to them, which they treat with a gentle condescension. No one is immune. Not the Hopis, not the critics, and least of all me.


Q: Have you had any entanglements with the author, Helga Teiwes, or the publisher of the original book?

I suppose, after this interview, I might. But for the last eight years no one contacted me.

Q: Have you encountered any copyright problems in your career?

Copyright problems only appear in regards to art when there’s a lot of money at stake, and as anyone who’s followed my career can easily ascertain, there’s almost none at stake. However, my take on intellectual property is the same as my take on all property, which is to say that it is theft.


Q: Your text formatting can appear daunting; how would you advise readers to approach it?

There are two fonts in the book’s lengthier essays. The one “behind” is Helga’s text. The one “in front” — pasted over in the style of a ransom note — is mine. By skipping over the original text, you can read mine according to its original continuity. But wherever possible, I tried to maintain some semblance of sentence structure even with Helga’s text.

It’s not quite a pure cut-up in the sense of William Burroughs. It’s a actually a combination of two methods. The first is Jacques Derrida’s “comparative” writing, where there are two texts on facing pages that inflect one another and in doing so enact a concept, as in his book Of Hospitality. The second is Raymond Roussel’s method used in his novel Locus Solus, and partially explained in How I Wrote Certain of My Books. Here, he takes a sentence and reorganizes its component parts so that its meaning is completely changed. Then, using his imagination, he “fills in” the narrative between the two. My text and Helga’s text “fill in” the spaces between each other.

Q: How did “Thank Heaven for Little Girls” (sho
wn in first image from top) come together for you?

It’s a piece about the intersection of ethics and aesthetics. Pedophiles are the most reviled offenders. To Americans, they are like Nazis: their crime represents a “radical evil” to which every other transgression must be compared. In the prison system for example, they are granted a level of infamy far beyond that of mere murderer. The reasons for this are moral and aesthetic, rather than ethical.

I chose three highly aestheticized examples of pedophilic images; those of Jock Sturges, Henry Darger, and pre-teen beauty pageant photography. As we’ve seen, certain types will denounce Sturges and Darger while defending the beauty pageants, or embrace Darger while denouncing Sturges and the pageants, etc. All this relative denunciation hinges on what Lee Edelman terms “reproductive futurism,” a subordination of all ethical and political concerns to a fantasy image of the child. It has nothing to do with the actual people in these images. … “Thank Heaven for Little Girls” is not a satire, it is a monstrosity. But it is also a realism.


Q: Your text makes note of Paul Rand and Tibor Kalman; what’s your perspective on these two guys?

I love Paul Rand’s logos, and I loved Colorforms when I was little. I’m still a huge fan.

Kalman on the other hand, meh. What might have once seemed clever in his work, now seems pretty lame. He broke Rand’s first rule! He was trying to be original instead of trying to be good. He seems to stand for a lot of really crappy stuff now. His politics were not even radical, they were just liberal mush. And he made them central to his project. Multiculturalism looks like a big capitalist trash pile to me. Kalman seemed to think it was some kind of fun carnival. Kalman looks like a tool to me.


Q: You also wrote that design has taken over advertising’s function; what did you mean?

I wrote this stuff years ago. I meant that the design of commodities contained the lifestyle associations that those commodities used to require advertising for. Everything is designed. But that’s a pretty shallow idea.

Now, I might say that much of art has been subordinated to design as well. A lot of the stuff we call art now is actually a form of design, a redesign of some other art. The art functions as a never-ending ad campaign for the lifestyles of the artists who make it, the curators who promote it, the collectors who buy it.

Some artists who would protest this state of affairs – and these are really the only ones I would even speak about – respond with a dry but petulant silence, albeit a stylish one. Others, like myself, become hysterical and self-destructive.


Q: What led you to your preoccupation with mass media and commodity culture?

Who doesn’t have this preoccupation? None of us are above it. It’s our world. But I don’t want to simply produce fodder for this “canon.” I’m not competing with its celebrities. There are other things in the world. Squid, cuttlefish, elephants, good coffee.

I like to read inside a tent. My wife makes up songs about imaginary animals. Long train rides. The mountains and the sea.

Q: And why did you become involved with creating bookworks?

I love the form. I love its rules and limitations. I love its sequence, the narrative it implies, but doesn’t enforce. I like the time it takes to examine, the criticisms it invites, the types of cognition I can meddle with. The economy of it, too.


Q: You hated one of your books so much that you destroyed the remainders by embedding them into a sculpture. What was the problem with it?

The problem was time. I rushed into producing the book in a very short amount of time. My own writing was used in a one-to-one relationship with my own images, creating a caption/illustration scenario which stripped my uses of text and image of their synthesis. Many of the texts had been written as press releases, and they weren’t meant to be catalogue essays.

My sculpture, “That Part Of My Life Is Over, Part 1” has a form which is borrowed from Broodthaers’ sculpture “Pense Bete.” I redacted my remaining copies of the book in different ways, removing all the text from one, all the images from another. One is perforated with a hole saw. Another is mummified with strips of fiberglass.

Some artists might burn it all down and dance around the flames. I like to take a more winding road.


Q: Hopi Basket Weaving was your first book; what’s your perspective now, seven years later?

There are a lot of problems with it although it’s still, essentially, a good book.

One problem is the way it mucks around with culture and identity. The gender stuff in there is crappy. I’ve done better projects with gender as a material since then.

And, despite its complex structure, it flirts with pastiche. It has a “Capitalism and Schizophrenia” vibe to it, although I never dreamed of taking that idea to the extremes that a lot of artists – long before me and shortly after – have gone to.

Definitely it’s a borderline book in terms of its politics. By which I mean that it needs to be marginal in order to be good. As a cult object, a samizdat pamphlet, an exception, it’s fine. As the rule, it would be horrible. It needs to be illicit. Some things are meant to be on the margins. HBW is definitely one of those.

It’s not for everybody. It’s nasty and abusive.


Q: What artists have inspired you?

Mike Kelley most of all. Kelley’s work is best found in his books. It sometimes seems that he made his exhibitions specifically with their reproduction in mind. I think he might have believed this form was more “democratic” than the gallery exhibition. Dieter Roth and Martin Kippenberger are also inspirations, of course, and perhaps because they are European, they harbored no such illusions about democracy.

Jack Smith, Marcel Broodthaers’ manipulation of Mallarme, Stephen Prina’s We Represent Ourselves To The World. Asger Jorn’s books published under the imprint “Library of Alexandria” have a sense of humor that reminds me of Terry Southern’s novels. In my favorite, he documents ancient graffiti which has been chiseled into the walls of Scandinavian churches, attributing it to various secret societies. Jason Metcalf’s A Historical Tour of The Kingdom of Deseret continues this tradition.

Roth‘s approach to the form is anarchic, but a lot of his books are actually sculptures. They have nothing to do with the book form in terms of its internal rules, its exclusive formal/conceptual space. Instead, they seem to address the economy of books in its particular relation to fine art. I believe one of his maxims was “Everything that is printed is good.”

Of course, the art world took him at his word: there are some “art” books published now that are just repositories of ephemera, thrown together in no particular order. But even more than this are journalistic contemporary art survey books, enormous tomes of information pieced together from here and there with big glossy pages, weighing 20 pounds or more. The spine ruptures as soon as you open it. It’s unable to support its own weight. These seem like a recent phenomenon, but clearly Roth saw it coming. Roth’s book projects parody these books in advance.


Q: What about Robert Crumb and Wacky Packages?

I love those things!

I always wanted to draw comics like Crumb. I recently published several pages of comics I drew in the 1990s in Smoke Signal, a great comics newspaper published by Gabe Fowler of Desert Island Comics, a great store in Brooklyn. I was more like Rory Hayes than Crumb though. I took a lot of drugs.

Wacky Packages! Hilarious. They’re raucous and grotesque, but there’s an innocence to them. A teenage innocence.


Q: You also mentioned to me that although you admire criminally convicted cartoonist Mike Diana’s extreme art you believe it probably deserves to be censored because it’s basically anti-social; could you expand on that?

This is a complex issue. I believe in censorship. I do not put a special premium on “free speech.” Speech is never free. Here we should follow Lacan: The speaking subject is ideology’s stooge. I have no problem with rounding up all the fascists, for instance. And most art really is a form of reactionary liberal propaganda, which we have to work against.

But Mike Diana’s work is not reactionary. Mike is a great artist, a real artist. His work is dark. His picture of our condition is dark, and his response to that condition is a form of transgressive nihilism. But I’m going to retract what i said before. This is because Mike’s work is ultimately an affirmation. The shape of this affirmation is twisted and bizarre, but it remains an affirmation of the human spirit. A society that cannot extend itself to accommodate this art is not complete. We are in debt to Mike for extending what our idea of society needs to encompass, for enlarging our definition of spirit.


Q: What’s your view of the contemporary art book scene?

The scene has overextended itself. It’s way too big, there are too many people involved. Many books are being published for no reason whatsoever. It’s a circus. But they continue to get churned out. I can’t for the life of me find a reason why this is good. Too much money is being poured in. This isn’t to say there are not great books. But the repressive desublimation of the scene keeps them hidden.

Q: As someone so devoted to the handmade and the tactile, how involved are you in the digital realm?

Not much. I still don’t have a website. But I am involved with the Voider and Red Bagel websites.

Q: Okay, what else is in the works?.I have a few exhibitions planned. One in Mallorca, one in Milan with the artist Servane Mary. And If I can get my shit together, another book.


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